There’s an old tale often retold in self-help books with Christian roots a la Norman Vincent Peale: an orator recites Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, to an audience who listens rapturously to his words and then breaks out into applause when he is finished. After a moment, an old man steps hesitantly up to read the same psalm. The orator is surprised but allows him to continue. Thereupon the old man bends his head and recites the psalm in a quiet, unmarked fashion, but with tears on his cheeks. When he finishes, nobody applauds. This is because the audience are weeping with him.
The orator is naturally confused. Why has this old man moved these people in a way that he cannot? Then he gets it. “The difference between us,” he says to the old man, “is that I know the Psalm, but you – you know the Shepherd.”
I was reminded of this the other week when I read yet another review lavishly praising a novel for its “elegant” and “restrained” prose style. As it happened, this work is by an author whose work I enjoy and admire. But I wonder if there is a tendency in Irish critical circles to “know the psalm and not the shepherd” when they praise restraint as an end in itself, rather than a means to be employed to an end.
A while back, I read a novel which was beautifully written, with the culture vividly depicted, the stories skilfully told. It won critical acclaim. But one scene, which described a tragic event, was written with the same beautiful prose. And with restraint. The prose was restrained all right. It recounted the event with icy serenity. All punches were pulled. I felt as if the raw emotional impact were muffled, then muffled some more.
More recently, I was working on something new. Desperate to find the correct approach, I asked my friend Helena Mulkerns for advice. Helena writes herself, frequently about conflict zones because of her work there. She knows war. My instinct was to go for broke, but I doubted myself. Could the impact be greater if done more subtly?
Helena was having none of it. Life can be painful, jagged, traumatic and difficult, she said. Go for broke.
I did as she advised – and it was the right decision. And as I was coming across more of this fetishisation with being “restrained” in one’s writing, particularly prevalent in Ireland, I realised what was bothering me about it, and why the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature are wrong.
Restraint is a technique, not a style.
Writerly restraint is no more or less than affording the reader the courtesy of space to experience the impact of the scene for herself. It’s about pulling back and allowing the reader to infer, rather than constantly poking at her with countless authorial interjections.
Restraint, for example, is not about saying “and so to bed” when a romantic relationship is consummated and fading to black, it’s about describing the encounter between them while keeping the fine balance between authenticity and avoiding cliché and overkill. Not that there is anything wrong with fading to black if it is consonant with the style of the story, but if it’s not, then the problem is lack of restraint – in this case indulging in hangups about sex rather than going through the severer discipline of working past them in order to be more true to the page.
But I don’t think the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature are praising genuine restraint. What they’re keen on is prose that doesn’t get too…well…emoshional. Heaven forbid. Drama is frowned upon, as are bold strokes. Bach is OK – though that slow Adagio with its mournful oboe on the first Brandenburg Concerto is on thin ice – but Wagner is right out. If prose is well-crafted enough, who cares if it happens to be about absolutely nothing, or has tried its worst to be about something but has collapsed under the deadweight of its own elegance? (In bookshops and on Amazon, I have picked up novels in the last year that answer to that fault, and rapidly put them down again.)
Restraint, in their eyes, is no longer a means to tell a more powerful story. Story is old hat. Restraint has become an end in itself.
That means that writers, in order to get past the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature, need to pick themes that facilitate restraint. Well I might as well give up at the starting whistle: a baroque, romantic love story set during WWI is off to a bad start. Tch tch, where’s the nuance, and the rain, and the rural cottage in that? But here’s the thing: I think the loss of story is something to be lamented. Our ancestors survived hard times by passing on stories to each other, and the Irish royal courts of old celebrated their bards and storytellers. Nineteenth century Irish writers were crafting such models of restraint and subtlety as…um…Melmoth the Wanderer, Castle Rackrent and Dracula. So what’s changed?
I think this is part of a wider problem in our polity. The tone of discourse in many of our media is moving more towards shutting down discussion than opening it up. Hundreds of years of fear and deprivation, remnants of Catholic hegemony and a raging inferiority complex are beginning to take their toll. Articles have appeared criticising those who “lose the run of themselves” who challenge carefully controlled propaganda. Stigma against the mentally ill, in spite of countless campaigns, still runs rampant through our society. Sanity, deadening, phlegmatic sanity, has taken over the body politic, is killing our ability to write exuberantly. Laura Riding once advised, “If you find something to tell, tell it to your truest, though that make little to tell; the truer you speak, the more you will know to tell.” I fear her words, that come from a saner place than our sanity, have become lost.
The inferiority complex, I think, makes us want to be more Ascendancy, even if we are not; at the same time it urges us in the opposite direction from Ascendancy literature, pushing us to shun emotional extravagance and bright colours. Never mind if you care about the characters, that’s just cheap thrills – what was that metaphor like? Did the turn of phrase prove critically pleasing? If the reader is engaged too passionately, something’s up. Dodgy, that. We Irish don’t trust passion. We’re afraid of it Yeats’s damning words in “September 1913” remain true for us. Losing the run of ourselves, so we are.
So, what to do? For me the answer is – continue to write and engage and care. Continue to tell stories that move me. Continue to obey Laura Riding’s maxim; continue to seek the advice of those I trust, like Helena. To write unrestrainedly – and to use restraint when needed. And if the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature don’t like that, well…
…they can f*** right off.
That restrained and elegant enough for ya? 🙂
click on cover icon to read more reviews and buying options